by Courtney Vice
If you’ve recently read any science fiction novel, you may have noticed how there seems to be two distinctive classes of robots: androids and, well, robots. Androids look human to the point where they can blend perfectly with society. In fact, they don’t even look like robots. They’re practically humans, but with a few more wires inside of them and no organs. So, maybe not practically humans, but pretty close.
Robots, however, look nothing like humans. Sure, they might be shaped like a human, but they have visible wires and are clearly made of metal. You’d have to be crazy to think it’s a human being! Think C3PO from the Star Wars series.
Okay, so we have robots in real life. They might not look human, but they can function like the robots we read about, perhaps not at the same level, but enough to be considered a “robot.” So…where are the androids at? I mean, come on, it’s 2017. You’d think someone would’ve made an android by now!
Believe me. We’ve tried, and it isn’t pretty.
Most of our “androids” fall into a creepy little rift called the uncanny valley. If you don’t know what the uncanny valley is, let me explain it to you. When things look extremely human, we are comfortable with it. We see it as one of us and don’t really have a problem with it. When something doesn’t look human at all, we know it isn’t one of us and don’t have to worry about it. We usually see these robots as cute because of how obviously not human they are.
However, there’s something deeply unsettling about a robot that looks human but is just the slightest bit off. A good example of this is the animatronics you see at Disney or other theme parks. You can tell that they’re trying to look as human as possible, but they aren’t…quite there yet.
People have tried to recreate androids and more realistic looking robots in our own world, but we are still stuck in this uncanny valley. The skin on the robots looks fake and plastic (probably because synthetic skin isn’t a mainstream thing, yet). The eyes might move around like a human, but there’s a robotic sense behind them that makes us uncomfortable. Their smiles are controlled by something that isn’t muscles, and that disturbs us. We’re not scared of them, per se, we’re just wary. It brings into question: if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, is it really a duck or just a robot pretending to be a duck?
Sophia the Robot is a perhaps the best real-life example of this (aside from the previously mentioned animatronics). She was created by Hanson Robotics and debuted in a video “Sophia Awakens” where she spoke with one of her creators, even going as far as to question whether she was Sophia or just Sophia born again. (Here’s the link for anyone curious). Despite being hailed as the most realistic and human android out there, she still hasn’t quite surpassed the uncanny valley herself. Her smile doesn’t cause that human sparkle in her eye. Her lips don’t quite match with her words. Her skin, while being detailed and correct in color, still looks like the silicone it was made from.
Similarly, another android, Geminioid F, was also programmed to be amongst humans, even starring in the film Sayonara. However, even Geminoid’s creators knew that she wasn’t quite there yet, hoping that her face was friendlier than previous models and made people feel “more eager to interact with her.”
In the book Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? which the film Blade Runner is based off of, androids are commonplace, albeit with no sense of empathy, which creates tension between them and the humans. Both Sophia and Geminioid F’s creators attempted to give her some sense of empathy in which they picks up facial and vocal reactions to what they says. After all, Geminioid F is an aspiring actress; you would hope she could gauge whether someone was angry or pleased with her actions.
While we may be a long way away from an I, Robot world, roboticists are getting ever closer to making it a reality. Sophia and Geminioid F are just one small step for robots, and one giant leap for robotic kind—even if their step is only almost human.